First published in The Herald on 23 August, 2014
Although now based in the United States, the Hungary-founded Takács Quartet keeps one foot firmly in the mittel-European soundworld from whence it came. And this programme was near enough to home territory: in the first half were two Czech masterpieces – Janáček’s Second String Quartet ‘Intimate Letters’ and Smetana’s First String Quartet – and in the second half was Beethoven’s Razumovsky Quartet.
Yet it seemed to take the quartet some time to get comfortable. The opening of the Janáček was a little stilted and lacked a real centre to the group sound. The narrative strands were carefully delineated – maybe too carefully, because things didn’t really synthesise until the searching Adagio. Here, though, the playing was beautiful, dark and heartfelt.
Compared to the glossy virtuosity of many younger quartets the Takács has a rugged edge to its articulation and a slight unevenness to its timbre. But in works such as the Smetana, written when the composer was facing ill health and depression, the sense of struggle and fallibility becomes a valid and touching expressive component. In the slow movement Smetana recalls the happiness of his first love; the quartet handled the tender melody with grace and sincerity.
What the Takács absolutely masters is the art of musical conversation. There was a real sense of four equal players on stage, with violist Geraldine Walther leading every bit as much as first violinist Edward Dusinberre. Each exchange was passed around with utmost care: occasionally this got in the way of fluidity in the Razumovsky, but more often the attention to detail was revelatory.